Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saving House Cleaners

I recently came across an idea that, while seemingly absurd on its face, I felt was likely a widely shared view and one that deserved a bit of examination.  The suggestion was that we maintain lower taxes for the rich, so that we can save the jobs of their house cleaners.

Let me apply some reality to that simple concept.  House cleaners typically make little money, lack benefits, and can only afford to live in poor neighborhoods with other low-skill workers.  This means they and their children are the prime beneficiaries of extra government spending on things like health insurance and childcare for the poor.  As a class, they likely also lack the ability to properly prepare their children for school. So extra government spending on things like schools lunches, tutoring, small class sizes, counselors and other intervention support become really important. 

They likely can't afford the $50 a month for high speed internet, so having a full-service computer lab at the library will also help when teachers assign homework.  Public transportation is also very important, as cars can be expensive to purchase, maintain and buy gas for.  Without much extra cash after bills are paid, public parks have always been indispensable to poor families looking for a cheap way to spend an afternoon together.  When their children graduate from high school (which isn't guaranteed, because the graduation rate for the children house cleaners and gardeners is terribly low), unless they can find a scholarship, state schools are the wisest option.  This means student loans are very important, as well as state universities and community colleges - the latter especially as a means of obtaining education in numerous trades.

Unfortunately, there's a considerable chance that their children will not have made it.  Whether due to poor support at home, negative peer influence (remember the neighborhood they live in), drugs, crime, gangs and sex are all pressures that will produce grandchildren to unfit mothers and fathers.  These children will be lucky if the 16 year old father sticks around at all (unlikely), or if the 16 year old mother knows how to address their cognitive and emotional needs through language and engagement (unlikely).  Assuming grandma is still cleaning house, the mother will have no option but to go on welfare while raising her child.  Because childcare for single mothers was just cut in her state, someone needs to take care of baby. 

But of course, few 16 year olds are cut out to be parents, and many will be resentful, realizing that when their friends are out partying, they're stuck changing diapers.  Broke, the father gone, and a bleak future ahead, who wouldn't be depressed and angry.  So fast forward 5 years, and this little kid enters kindergarten likely having only ever been read to a few times, with underdeveloped cognitive skills and zero knowledge of the alphabet or numeracy.  Hopefully he will have gone to a government funded head-start program, which will have reduced his knowledge gap from maybe 3 to 2 years. 

Along with his class of 30, most of whom are similarly disadvantaged, many worse off - already victims of neglect or an abusive household - they are thrown into an intense environment of academic catch-up.  Some will do OK, taking to the challenge.  Others, especially those with fewer supports at home, will begin to hate the world, especially as represented by the institution of public schooling, which they rapidly begin to associate with cold authoritarianism designed to punish them for their lack of understanding.  Some truly wonderful teachers, the enlightened type with limitless compassion and patience for slow developmental progress will be able to provide some of them with some of the remediation they need.  But many teachers will be ordinary people, and respond to a class of 30 cognitively, experientially and behaviorally disadvantaged children the best they know how, and considerably more will fall through the cracks.  With the government spigot closing fast, not only have class sizes ballooned, but "extras" like music and art will have been excises from these students lives.

That's the life of a house cleaner.  Or a gardener.  Or many a cashier.  Or clerk.  Or dishwasher.  Or generally anyone making poverty wages.  The more you lower taxes on the people most able to afford them, the less money you have to spend on any of the above interventions I've mentioned that play a crucial role in facilitating happiness and mobility in the lives of the working poor.  The growth you get by cutting taxes will not raise government revenues enough to pay for the original cuts you made.  In the end, we simply choose whether or not we feel these programs are worth paying for.  It isn't a matter of can we, but should we.

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